Rationale: Pulmonary arterial hypertension is characterized by endothelial dysfunction, impaired bone morphogenetic protein receptor 2 (BMPR2) signaling, and increased elastase activity. Synthetic elastase inhibitors reverse experimental pulmonary hypertension but cause hepatotoxicity in clinical studies. The endogenous elastase inhibitor elafin attenuates hypoxic pulmonary hypertension in mice, but its potential to improve endothelial function and BMPR2 signaling, and to reverse severe experimental pulmonary hypertension or vascular pathology in the human disease was unknown.
Objectives: To assess elafin-mediated regression of pulmonary vascular pathology in rats and in lung explants from patients with pulmonary hypertension. To determine if elafin amplifies BMPR2 signaling in pulmonary artery endothelial cells and to elucidate the underlying mechanism.
Methods: Rats with pulmonary hypertension induced by vascular endothelial growth factor receptor blockade and hypoxia (Sugen/hypoxia) as well as lung organ cultures from patients with pulmonary hypertension were used to assess elafin-mediated reversibility of pulmonary vascular disease. Pulmonary arterial endothelial cells from patients and control subjects were used to determine the efficacy and mechanism of elafin-mediated BMPR2 signaling.
Measurements and main results: In Sugen/hypoxia rats, elafin reduced elastase activity and reversed pulmonary hypertension, judged by regression of right ventricular systolic pressure and hypertrophy and pulmonary artery occlusive changes. Elafin improved endothelial function by increasing apelin, a BMPR2 target. Elafin induced apoptosis in human pulmonary arterial smooth muscle cells and decreased neointimal lesions in lung organ culture. In normal and patient pulmonary artery endothelial cells, elafin promoted angiogenesis by increasing pSMAD-dependent and -independent BMPR2 signaling. This was linked mechanistically to augmented interaction of BMPR2 with caveolin-1 via elafin-mediated stabilization of endothelial surface caveolin-1.
Conclusions: Elafin reverses obliterative changes in pulmonary arteries via elastase inhibition and caveolin-1-dependent amplification of BMPR2 signaling.
Keywords: apelin; arterial smooth muscle cells; endothelial cell apoptosis; neutrophil elastase inhibition; pulmonary vascular regeneration and angiogenesis.